Showing posts with label Gillian Flynn. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gillian Flynn. Show all posts

Thursday, November 13

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Character Driven Openings

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Character Driven Openings

The Character Opening

The character story opening is my favorite kind of opening, though it’s arguably the trickiest to pull off. 

At the moment I’m on a Gillian Flynn reading jag. Her books, all but the first, start out with strong, shocking, character descriptions. 

Here’s the first few lines of her second book, Dark Places:

“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it.”

Dark Places is (or so it seems to me, I’m about 25% of the way through) a mystery wrapped in a horror story. But not supernatural horror, not the kind one can laugh off after leaving the theater. This is about something that feels real, the sort of thing we hear about on the news and are enraged by, or crushed by, for a few hours or days until the ebb and flow of our daily lives draws us back and makes us forget the evil that lurks beneath the skin. 

Gillian Flynn smashes off a chunk of that evil and forms her all-too-human characters with it.

But perhaps horror isn’t your cup of tea. (It would make a nasty cuppa, black and bitter and deadly.)

His jaw was long and bony ...

Here’s one of my favorite first paragraphs:

“Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.”

Yes, this is also a descriptive opening, but it gives us a peek (if I may put it like this) into the protagonist’s soul. It gives us a broad hint at exactly how difficult Sam would be to manipulate and how far he might take things. 

Why Do These Openings Work?

I want to write a longer post on why certain openings are effective but, here, I’d say that both openings surprise (perhaps even shock) the reader. Also, both openings have an intimate tone. And both these protagonists are, let’s face it, strange.

Most importantly, though, each opening raises questions.

In Dark Places the question is one of nature vs nurture. One asks: Why does the protagonist (Libby Day) have a meanness inside her? Is she correct, is it a matter of who she is, a matter of her blood? Is it the case that there’s something wrong with her and it doesn’t matter what she does, it’s always going to be there? Or perhaps something, something horrible, happened in her past, something that changed her, that warped her. Something that, perhaps, can be at least partially undone. And if so, what was it?

This is a terrific opener for the book because those questions form the core, the irregularly beating heart, of the story. They never go away, they just become more and more urgent. 

Character openings are infrequent

There are good reasons to not start a story off by looking into the soul of the main character. Many folks need their curiosity peeked first, they need to know a bit about the underlying story before they can be interested in a particular character.

The power of plot vs the power of characterization

I don’t believe there is any tension between characterization and plot; one can’t have strong characters without plot because plot flows naturally from the conflicts between strong characters. That said, I do think a story can be suspenseful in the absence of strong characterization. 

Don’t believe me? Read Stephen King’s retelling of “The Hook” (found in Danse Macabre), an urban myth that has a strong plot (that has narrative drive, suspense, etc.) but hardly any characterization. I wanted to reproduce it here but it was too long. If you do, imagine you and your friends are leaning forward into the warmth of a dying fire while one of you tells the tale. 

(Here is a link to The Hook over at Wikipedia; it’s not as good as Stephen King’s retelling but it will give you an idea what the story is if you’ve never heard it before.)

Here’s King’s comment:

“The story of The Hook is a simple, brutal classic of horror. It offers no characterization, no theme, no particular artifice; it does not aspire to symbolic beauty or try to summarize the times, the mind, or the human spirit. [...] No, the story of The Hook exists for one reason and one reason alone: to scare the shit out of little kids after the sun goes down.” (Stephen King, Danse Macabre)

And I think Stephen King would agree that the same could be said for most urban myths.

Why does The Hook work? Call it whatever you want, dramatic tension, narrative drive or suspense. 

My point (yes, there is one!) is that we often need whatever it is that the story of The Hook possesses, we need it at the beginning of the story to seduce readers into caring about the characters, to get the story rolling. 


I’m not putting this forward as a rule (there are no rules in writing) and as we’ve seen, some authors are brilliant at character introductions, so I would never try and discourage someone from starting their story off this way. It’s just, depending on the story and the style of the writer, more difficult to grab readers from the very first sentence.

Often writers reach for something shocking or contradictory or, failing that, something that frustrates our expectations and makes us think, something that gets us turning pages, something that gets us to care about the characters. Because, ultimately, it’s all about the characters.

So. That’s my take on why most openings are plot oriented rather than character oriented. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at humorous openings and try to pin down what makes something funny.

Photo credit: "Chihuahua" by kenichi nobusue under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, October 20

On Breaking The Rules of Writing: It’s All On The Table

On Breaking The Rules of Writing: It’s All On The Table

I’m a rebel at heart. I like it when writers break so-called rules and still produce a stunning piece of writing.

The Rule: Never begin a story with a character waking

For example, Gillian Flynn opens “Gone Girl” with a character waking. As I write this I realize someone might protest that “Gone Girl” begins with three paragraphs of Nick Dunne’s musings about his wife’s head, it’s shape and possible contents. But then, after these 185 words, Gillian Flynn writes:

“My eyes flipped open at exactly six A.M. This was no avian fluttering of the lashes, no gentle blink toward consciousness. The awakening was mechanical. A spooky ventriloquist-dummy click of the lids: The world is black and then, showtime! 6-0-0 the clock said—in my face, first thing I saw. 6-0-0. It felt different. I rarely woke at such a rounded time. I was a man of jagged risings: 8:43, 11:51, 9:26. My life was alarmless.”

And then, after this paragraph about Nick Dunne waking up, we get a paragraph about the weather! And you know what? Not only does it work but it is some of the most beautiful, alive, witty prose I’ve read in a long time.

The Rule: Never have your narrator address the reader directly

Another thing we’re told not to do, something that irks many readers enough to fling their books (or eReaders) across the room, is when (Dear Reader) the writer—or, really, the narrator—addresses the reader directly.

I’ve started reading P.G. Wodehouse, perhaps as a reaction to the delicious darkness of “Gone Girl”. I’ve broken into his corpus by way of his Jeeves books (specifically, “Thank You, Jeeves.”)

Here’s an example of what I mean. The narrator is Bertram (Bertie) Wooster.

“I wonder if you would mind just going back a bit and running the mental eye over that part of our conversation which had had to do with the girl. 

“Anything strike you about it?


“Oh, well, to get the full significance, of course, [...]” 

In those short paragraphs Wodehouse speaks directly to the reader. Here’s another example:

“But I had carried on according to plan, and here I was, on the fifth morning of my visit, absolutely in the pink and with no regrets whatsoever. The sun was shining. The sky was blue. And London seemed miles away—which it was, of course. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that a great peace enveloped the soul.”

All that is perfectly standard. It’s funny, and Wodehouse’s distinctive voice shines through the prose, but the author isn’t doing anything outlandish. Then, in the next paragraph, the narrator shakes things up by confessing to the reader that ...

“A thing I never know when I’m telling a story is how much scenery to bung in. I’ve asked one or two scriveners of my acquaintance, and their views differ. A fellow I met at a cocktail party in Bloomsbury said that he was all for describing kitchen sinks and frowsty bedrooms and squalor generally, but the beautifies of Nature, no. Whereas, Freddie Oaker, of the Drones, who does takes of pure love for the weeklies under the pen-name of Alicia Seymour, once told me that he reckoned that flowery meadows in springtime alone were worth at least a hundred quid a year to him.”

I know some readers hate the jarring sensation that can accompany being scooped up from your comfortable armchair (or park bench or bus seat or ...) and plopped into the story. Many (many) people would like to keep their narrators at arms length and not have these little private asides from them. Personally, though, I love the cosy feeling of being involved in the story, of being drawn into it like this, where the characters themselves reach out to you. One gets the feeling: They are talking to me! (If you’re thinking that this is a sign I should get out more, you could be right.)

Writing Rules

I think there are only three rules when it comes to writing:

1. Writers write.
2. Writers read.
3. Take all other rules with a grain of salt.

Yes, there are rules of thumb, advice that can make things easier for a new writer, someone who isn’t as adept as, say, Gillian Flynn. Her writing is artful, her prose is poetic.

The problem (I say that as though there were just one) in beginning a story when a character wakes up is that, generally, waking up isn’t terribly exciting. What’s the conflict? The struggle to stay awake? If so, the story’s in trouble before it really gets going. But, in Gillian Flynn’s able hands, it is interesting. One gets a sense that these opening paragraphs form a kind of parallel, or allegory, for the story itself. Nick is awaking ... to a nightmare. Perhaps one of his own making.

In summary, don’t let any writing rule make you feel you can’t do something you’d like to. Ultimately, we write for ourselves, we write because it’s not only something we must do but because it’s something we (usually) enjoy doing. As Stephen King says in “On Writing”:

“There is absolutely no need to be hidebound and conservative in your work [...] Shit, write upside down if you want to, or do it in Crayola pictographs. But no matter how you do it, there comes a point when you must judge what you’ve written and how well you wrote it. I don’t believe a story or a novel should be allowed outside the door of your study or writing room unless you feel confident that it’s reasonably reader-friendly. You can’t please all of the readers all of the time; you can’t please even some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time. [...] And now that I’ve waved that caution flag [...] let me reiterate that it’s all on the table, all up for grabs. Isn’t that an intoxicating thought? I think it is. Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, “Murder your darlings,” and he was right.”

That says it all.